COVID-19 crisis:

Party leaders behave, for once

Party leaders meeting in progress

Vishvanath

It is seldom that political leaders see eye to eye on anything, in this country. They are perennially at daggers drawn and go for one another’s jugular, at the drop of a hat. In the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami (2004), which pummelled the country’s littoral, destroying as it did tens of thousands of lives and properties worth billions of rupees, leaders of all political hues got together and vowed to help the country rise above the waves. But their much-publicized show of unity was short-lived. They started bashing one another, in public, shortly afterwards. They did likewise, following the Easter Sunday carnage (2019), as well, instead of joining forces to help the bereaved families, defeat terrorism and safeguard national security. When they met, in Parliament, purportedly to have a debate on the terror strikes, they only traded allegations and insults. Nothing constructive came of the ‘debate’.

Since a sharp increase in the incidence of COVID-19, a couple of weeks ago, there have been strident calls for reconvening the dissolved Parliament to discuss ways and means of managing the national health emergency. Former Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the presence of only 20 MPs, being the quorum, is needed for a parliamentary sitting.

Call for reconvening Parliament

Why the Opposition is trying to have Parliament reconvened is not difficult to guess. COVID-19 has eclipsed all other issues, in the country, and the Opposition finds it difficult to attract much-needed media attention at this juncture. Above all, the government is handling one of the biggest problems the country has faced while Parliament and the Provincial Councils remain dissolved. If it manages the coronavirus crisis successfully, it will get a turbo boost for its election campaign, which is already underway, to all intents and purpose. If it bungles, the Opposition will stand to gain.

There has been a precedent for reconvening a dissolved Parliament, in this country. The Sixth Parliament, which commenced, on 22 April 2004 and was dissolved on 09 Feb. 2010, after four sessions, had to be reconvened, twice, on 09 March, 2010 and 06 April 2010 for Emergency Regulations to be passed. But the incumbent government has refused to follow the precedent. Instead, on Tuesday (24), it opted for a meeting of the leaders of the political parties, which were represented in the last Parliament.

Temple Trees meeting

The political party leaders met, at Temple Trees on 24 March, at the request of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Director General of Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, Acting Inspector General C. D. Wickramaratne and other high ranking officials were also present.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader, Rauff Hakeem, speaking at the aforesaid meeting, requested Prime Minister Rajapaksa to have Parliament reconvened immediately to discuss the COVID-19 crisis. But his request didn’t find favour with the government representatives. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader Udaya Gammanpila, rejected Hakeem’s call lock, stock and barrel. He said there was no need for reconvening Parliament as nobody, involved in the battle against COVID-19 has asked for new laws, etc. He also said 225 former MPs and parliament workers should not gather while the public was being urged to adopt physical distancing. He maintained that the party leaders could meet and discuss issues related to COVID-19 instead of reconvening Parliament. It was clear that he was articulating the position of the government, which does not want Parliament reconvened.

Government’s gamble

The government, obviously, wants to handle the situation, under its own steam, without sharing the credit for the country’s battle against COVID-19, with others. This, however, is a huge gamble, given how ill-equipped the country is to manage a possible explosive spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organisation has identified four stages of the transmission of the disease:

  1. No cases
  2. Sporadic cases
  3. Clusters
  4. home clusters
  5. small group clusters
  6. Community transmission

The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has said Sri Lanka is now faced with stage 3 of the COVID-19 spread. If the disease reaches the fourth stage, it will spread like a wildfire, and the government will have its work cut out to handle it; its popularity ratings are bound to plummet.

Ranil scores heavily

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe outshone others, at the Temple Trees meeting on 24 March. Speaking in a measured tone, he suggested what, he thought, should be done. Agreeing with others on the need to extend the curfew while steps were taken to keep the rural economy afloat, he said the state employees who were not involved in essential services could be granted leave. He also pointed out that COVID-19 tests had be conducted aggressively and the country prepared for a far worse situation, where there might arise the need for more ICU beds and ventilators. Sri Lanka could not import ventilators as the major companies manufacturing them were located in the coronavirus-hit countries such as Italy and China, he noted, suggesting that ventilators and ICU beds be produced locally. Prime Minister Rajapaksa responded that a project was already underway to manufacture ventilators with the help of the Peradeniya University Engineering Faculty. The Presidential Task Force appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was working on that project, he said.

In a video released to social media, on Friday (27), Wickremesinghe reiterated what he had said at the party leaders’ meeting and pledged his fullest support for the country’s fight against coronavirus. He indirectly called for reconvening Parliament when he said other countries had passed new laws to tackle the coronavirus crisis and Sri Lanka had to follow suit.

Tuesday’s party leaders’ meeting ended on a positive note. The JVP, which otherwise never misses an opportunity to haul the government over the coals, pulled its punches. JVP Propaganda Secretary and former MP Vijitha Herath, fielding questions from the media, while leaving Temple Trees, said the government response to the pandemic had been slow, initially, but the steps being taken at present were satisfactory. He stressed the need to look after the poor who had been badly hit by the curfew.

The party leaders, we believe, should meet often and discuss issues pertaining to the coronavirus situation, which could take a turn for the worse anytime, as it has happened in the UK. But Parliament is best left dissolved. Had they met in Parliament, on Tuesday, they would not have been able to have a decent discussion on the issue.

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